Question: Were books about magic and the occult easily and readily available on the 19th century frontier?

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Question: Were books about magic and the occult easily and readily available on the 19th century frontier?

Assertions regarding the availability of "magic" and "occult" books on the 19th century frontier

The author of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View asserts the following: [1]

  • In an effort to show that books on magic were readily available on the frontier, the author makes some estimates. After estimating that a single book peddler "was selling about 25,000 books to farmers each year," the author then concludes that "by the early 1800’s there were thousands of peddlers."
  • The author also claims that “‘some peddlers also stocked clandestine works’” and that therefore, “if local stores would not supply occult publications to American farmers, book peddlers were there to fill the need.”

All peddlers were not book peddlers

The author miscites his source, doubles the cited figure, and conflates book peddlers with all peddlers.

"Quinn seriously misrepresents his sources. First, he does not inform us of the semantic shift from book peddlers to peddlers of all types. It is true that there were thousands of peddlers in the United States during the early nineteenth century, but book peddlers were only a small portion of this number...Quinn's source for the claim that "one peddler was selling about 25,000 books to farmers each year" (p. 21) is an article by James Purcell. Here is what Purcell actually wrote: "During the years 1809 and 1810 he [Weems, a book peddler] sold $24,000 worth of books for him [publisher Mathew Carey] in the South." Note how the two years' worth of sales clearly described in Purcell's article is transformed by Quinn into a single year's sales: "selling about 25,000 books to farmers each year." Quinn thus magically doubles the actual book sales."[2]:38

Multiple "occult texts" were not being made easily available

The book also asserts that Weems was selling these volumes "door-to-door in the rural areas of the South" to individual "farmers." The author attempts to portray a wholesaler supplying multiple bookstores as representative of one of thousands of wandering book peddlers. He again seeks to bolster his absurd claim that multiple occult texts were easily available in New England in the 1800s.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. Does Quinn really think that a single peddler, working door-to-door with nineteenth-century transportation, could carry and deliver 25,000 books to backwoods farmers in a single year? This would require selling nearly 2,100 books a month, or carrying and selling almost seventy books a day by a single salesman going door-to-door in rural farm country. In reality, in modern terminology Weems was a regional sales representative for Philadelphia bookseller Mathew Carey and others. His itinerary largely focused on selling to local booksellers."[2]:39

All "clandestine" books were not actually about the occult

The author again distorts his source—there was a market for pornography, which is hardly surprising. This does not mean that there was a market for expensive occult books.

"Is there any indication of what Gilmore (the author Quinn quotes) meant by the term clandestine? Indeed there is. He meant illegal pornography, as is made quite clear in his article. Nowhere in Gilmore's article is there a single mention of a peddler selling occult books."[2]:41


  1. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 21.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]